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In Boston's faltering bid for 2024 Summer Games, a warning for Olympics

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Charles Krupa/AP/File

(Read caption) Shadows of organizers and reporters pass a video display screen prior to a January news conference by organizers of Boston's campaign for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Boston. The city was selected in January by the United States Olympic Committee as the US bid city for the games. But support has sagged in public opinion polls.

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Boston’s faltering bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics is in danger of becoming a cautionary tale – both for cities bidding to host the games and for the entire Olympic movement.

Even when the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) selected Boston as its bid city in January, only 51 percent of Boston-area voters supported the idea. By the end of March, that number had sunk to less than 40 percent, where it remains.

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The tepid support throws Boston’s bid into doubt, since it is subject to a statewide public referendum. Indeed, the USOC could drop the city's bid, according to a document obtained by Boston.com, and choose a different city before Sept. 15. Paris’s decision Tuesday to throw its hat in the ring for 2024 raises the stakes.

"If the United States is to have chance [of holding the Olympics] in 2024, it seems very improbable that Boston is going to be the winner," says Alan Abrahamson, a longtime Olympics reporter.

In many ways, Boston has only itself to blame. It needed to involve the public in the bid, he says.

"What’s been going on has been the antithesis of the New England town meeting," says Mr. Abrahamson. "When you try to bring the Olympics to a place, you have to do the buy-in beforehand, and in this instance that didn’t happen."

Yet Boston is also part of a broader problem facing the Olympic movement: More and more cities are saying “no thank you” to the prospect of hosting a multibillion dollar, two-week sports carnival. The bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics has progressed so poorly that only Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan, have not withdrawn.

The takeaway there, too, is that without significant outreach to the public, an Olympic bid can be seen not only as a hassle but a gigantic waste of money – particularly in the West.

"Public support was the thing that brought down most of these other bids for 2022," says Ed Hula, founder and editor in chief of Around The Rings, a sports website focused on the Olympic movement. "The biggest lesson from that is you’ve got to build your support, you've got to know where it is."

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Opinion polls in Boston show that Boston failed to do that, and Abrahamson reported last week that senior International Olympic Committee (IOC) members supported the idea of pulling Boston's bid and giving it to another city, most likely Los Angeles.

“The sooner the better. It has to be now,” an anonymous IOC member told him.

But public buy-in is becoming harder to secure anywhere. A history of extravagant and costly games reached a tipping point last year with the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, experts say. The games ended up costing $51 billion – making them the most expensive ever.

“There’s no way that anyone who’s rational cannot look at that number and go, ‘Holy cow, is this what it now takes to put on an Olympics?’ ” says Abrahamson. "The answer is, ‘No, that’s not what it takes.’ But getting past that question, it takes some dialogue, and in our 24/7 instant world a lot of people can only hear ‘$51 billion.’ ”

Kriston Capps, writing for The Atlantic's City Lab, suggested that an American city may never get to host the Olympics again – at least as long as the mega-events remain bloated and expensive.

"It's hard to beat a totalitarian state on a mega-event bid," wrote Mr. Capps.

European cities are likewise spooked. Several European cities made a formal application to the IOC to host the 2022 Winter Games, but public opinion sent what promised to be a robust race into "a scramble for the escape hatch," The New York Times reported.

Munich and Switzerland (a joint effort from Davos and St. Moritz) withdrew their bids after public referendums. Stockholm was next to withdraw, citing cost concerns, and a few months later Krakow withdrew after nearly 70 percent of voters rejected the plan. Lviv, Ukraine, was withdrawn due to the crisis in the country, and Oslo pulled its bid despite 55 percent of its citizens voting to support it in a 2013 referendum. 

The two cities left standing: Beijing, which boasts Nordic and snowboarding venues 120 miles away, and Almaty, a city of 1.4 million people in a country with a questionable human rights record.

Abrahamson adds that the IOC "wants to feel wanted" when it comes to a city.

There was "something near panic" when public approval for Chicago’s 2012 bid was only 67 percent. (It was eliminated in the first round of voting.) Support in Los Angeles for a 2024 bid hovers around 70 percent.

Neither Abrahamson nor Mr. Hula think the USOC will pull Boston's bid, but neither think the city is likely to end up hosting the 2024 games.

There are reforms the IOC could consider to avoid this kind of chaos in the future, Abrahamson says. The big one is to get rid of a rule in place since 1999 banning IOC members from visiting bidding cities. The ban was implemented after the corruption-plagued bid from Salt Lake City.

"It is not best practices for an institution that is a multibillion dollar entity to award its franchise without the 100-plus voting members having seen in person the various possibilities," says Abrahamson. "Would anyone think the IOC would have gone to Sochi if they had seen what was on the ground in Sochi, which was nothing?"

For the 2024 Olympics, he says the USOC did its due diligence. It just picked the wrong city.

"The question is why the [USOC] board did not do what in hindsight now seems like the obvious thing," he says, "and go in a different direction back in January."